Oh, it hurts.
I believe it was Ernest Hemingway who coined the title to this post. He was referring to those wonderful turns of phrase a writer comes up with that, in the final analysis, simply don’t belong in the story and must go. It’s painful to chop a few beautiful lines from what you’ve written, but it’s sheer agony when it’s an entire scene–an entire, absolutely perfect, ingenious, stunning scene–that you ultimately realize doesn’t belong in the book.
This has happened to me more times than I care to admit. When I start working on a story, I often have a dramatic scene pop into my mind. It’s usually an opening scene or even a prologue, and it’s crisp and provocative and often provides the spark I need to create the rest of the story. The problem is, as I do create the rest of the story, I often realize that that initial scene doesn’t belong. Sometimes I can see that for myself. Other times it takes a friend or editor to break the news to me.
Sometimes, though, it works. The very first images I had of Before the Storm were these two: a fire narrated by a special needs teenaged boy, and a teenaged girl sitting on the deck of a round beach cottage, trying to connect to the spirit of her dead father. I loved both these scenes, and they both made it into the final cut.
Similarly, one of my early mental images as I wrote The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes was of a small, delicate and anxious woman coming onto the porch of her house to face a sea of TV cameras and microphones. That scene was cryptic, leading the reader to wonder “what is going on?” and it made it into chapter one. I find scenes like that incredibly yummy.
However, I still remember the prologue I wrote in the first draft of my third novel, Secret Lives. The character Kyle was on a train and the reader is in his head as he dreads what will happen when he arrives at his destination. I loved that scene! I am happiest when I’m writing in a slightly gothic style–dark and mysterious and provocative–and that scene really fit the bill and helped me see all the scenes that were to follow. When I’d finished the draft though, my writing group told me it didn’t belong. I argued, pleading for its life, but to no avail. My group was right. The scene had given me the gift of the rest of the novel, but beautifully written or not, it served no other purpose. I killed it. Ouch.
So I am now writing the proposal for my new Work-in-Progress. A proposal generally consists of an outline and a few chapters. I wrote a page and a half prologue that is, in my humble opinion, a real winner. Gothic as all get out. Sure to make the reader wonder what the heck is going on. And a concise and pithy introduction to the main character. The only problem is, as I worked on the outline and the characters started doing their usual thing, shoving me around and telling me how I have it all wrong, the prologue was no longer fitting the story. I’m not yet to the point where I can plunge a knife in its heart. I’m going to see if I can rework it to fit. (There’s a chance I may rework the story to fit it. . . sometimes those babies are too stubborn to die).
This will be my nineteenth book, and it still hurts to kill my babies. If you’re a writer, how do you pull the plug?